It seems we’ve said it over and over again for nearly every game this season (we have), but Kentucky’s game against Vanderbilt on Saturday could make or break Mark Stoops’ coaching career in Lexington.
Let me preface by saying I support Coach Stoops, and I genuinely want him to succeed at UK. I think he has done some unbelievable things for the University of Kentucky, reenergizing a hungry fan base, bringing in recruits that would have never sniffed UK without he and his coaching staff’s recruiting presence, and a demand for much-needed funding for the football program to compete with the other SEC powerhouses. Stadium renovations, state of the art practice facility, and elite recruits, three incredible steps forward to help put UK football back on the map.
But the wins still aren’t there, and the Big Blue Nation is growing restless.
“This is year four, no more excuses,” tends to be a common phrase throughout the bluegrass as of late. Stoops has nearly an entire roster full of only his recruits, so the “Joker’s leftovers” narrative doesn’t work anymore. An embarrassing second half meltdown against SMU, not showing up against Florida, and a first half mess against New Mexico State forced the optimists to lose faith and the pessimists to throw the “I told you so” card.
There were rumblings that a loss against South Carolina meant Stoops was out at Kentucky, an entirely separate situation from the “other” rumors we won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. How much truth was there to those talks? I have no idea, and luckily we won’t have to find out. That being said, I think the leash around Stoops’ neck is fairly short in the eyes of Mitch Barnhart, and some major problems could arise should a bowl not happen this year.
If UK beats Vanderbilt on Saturday, those dreams of a bowl bid are still very much alive, and Stoops has a great deal of pressure lifted off his shoulders.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that the wheels were shaking, but weren’t falling off yet, and I believe this still holds true. UK managed to pull off an ugly win against NMSU, got the job done against South Carolina, and showed some good things against Alabama, which is certainly a good sign of much-needed progress being made by both coaches and players.
Since Mark Stoops has taken over on the defensive side of the ball, that unit has actually been fairly impressive, giving up just 8.8 points per half over the past five halves of play. On offense, we’ve seen the emergence of Benny Snell, Boom Williams’ continued success, potential in Stephen Johnson as a game manager, and receivers with ability to actually catch the ball.
There are three consecutive “winnable” games coming up against Vandy, Mississippi State, and Missouri, with a fourth against Austin Peay a few weeks after. There are your six. There is your bowl game, with a 4-4 record in the SEC, nonetheless.
Stoops goes to a bowl, I believe his job is safe, and fans are happy.
Optimism is there for the remainder of the season, but it either builds or comes to a screeching halt against Vandy on Saturday.
If UK manages to lose, the road to a bowl game becomes extremely difficult, as they’d have to find wins against Mississippi State, Missouri, Georgia, and Austin Peay to participate in postseason action. Tennessee and Louisville also remain on the schedule, but victories against either of those two teams are a long shot, to say the least.
Every “winnable” game is a must-win for Stoops at this point in the season, there’s no other way to put it. He has no leeway to slip up in a game, as he lost his “get out of jail free” card against Southern Miss.
Kentucky loses against Vanderbilt, and those wheels very well may come off. If the Wildcats win, momentum builds, and those wheels tighten up ever so slightly.
“Must-win” has never been more true for Mark Stoops than this weekend against the Commodores.